Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book Review: The Runaways by Glenn Balch


Set just after the Second World War. Jan, a young Latvian refugee from a concentration camp, and his family have taken refuge on a ranch in Idaho, helping the rancher by doing farm work. When Jan accidentally breaks the law, memories of being incarcerated in the war terrify him and he runs away from justice to hide in the hills. But instead of escaping he becomes friendly with a herd of wild horses, feeling an affinity for their hunted status. He decides to stay and protect the foals from a wild cougar that is killing them.


As with many of the 'ranch' or 'wild horse' type stories published in the USA from the 1940s to the 1960s, this was firmly aimed at the boy’s market. It's focus on guns and killing will not endear it to some readers. For me, the boy’s hunt for the cougar takes up too much of the story. Less of this and more description of the actual life of the wild horses would have been preferable. It also seems a bit hypocritical that the boy is so angry with the cougar for killing the foals when he is doing the same thing in killing rabbits and other wildlife to feed himself. I must admit I feel a certain irritation when a cougar/mountain lion appears in this sort of story. I always feel its a cliche on a par with the gypsy in the British pony book. It is also what I like to call a 'bad press' animal, on a par with the wolf and fox. All three are almost demonized in so many stories and branded as evil ferocious killers, which is about as far from the truth as possible.

However back to the story itself. On the plus side, the book is well-written and the emotions of the central character are very well portrayed , especially his fear of being hunted and the envy he feels at the carefree easy life of his American contemporary Eddie. We soon realise that his anger at the cougar’s hunting of the horses is a transference of the impotent fury he feels about his family being hunted, first by invading soldiers and now by the game wardens. He can’t get rid of his own pursuers but he can try and kill the cougar. The reader will certainly empathise with Jan and what he has been through and will also want to keep reading to find out what happens to him.  There is the sense that Jan’s experiences have given him an insight into what the life of the wild horses - constantly hunted - is really like.

In summary certainly not a traditional pony story, it is deeply entrenched in the hard-hitting world of ranch life with no room for squeamishness and this will not be to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless it is a thoughtful portrayal of a boy trying to cope with his traumas and finding an unexpected affinity with the wild horses he encounters.


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